harrytheheir (harrytheheir) wrote,

The Passage of Power by Robert Caro (2012)

(See below. This is a Goodreads review that I wrote on May 20, 2012.)

I love Caro's multi-volume biography of LBJ. I tore through the first three volumes last year, and I got The Passage of Power as soon as it came out. He's a wonderful writer (if easily parodied). The chapter in The Path to Power about Hill Country women making do in a land without electricity was mind-boggling, and Caro is predictably good telling the story of the JFK assassination and the minutes, hours and days immediately afterward, where LBJ assumed command. Caro can switch from extreme close-up to vast panoramas; he can examine a particularly important day moment by revealing moment and then cover months at a time; he can take abstruse or obscure bureaucratic maneuvers and make them the stuff of drama. I love Robert Caro.

I don't, however, trust Robert Caro. He's not so much a historian as a myth-maker, and his agenda is less about historical analysis and more about LBJ as the Shakespearean anti-hero that defined postwar American politics, for good or ill. In Means of Ascent, most notoriously, this led him to lionize Coke Stevenson as a sort of cowboy Cincinnatus, the better to paint LBJ as a quasi-demonic figure of the new politics and all that it would wrought. The reader would have to read between the lines to see evidence that Stevenson was an anti-intellectual fundamentalist, that he had profited from ballot-stuffing as much as LBJ, or that LBJ was running as a Truman Democrat while Coke was part of Strom Thurmond's Jim Crow insurgency.

The Passage of Power is less glaring in this regard, but Caro's storytelling agenda still predominates. Can it really be true, for example, that LBJ's mutual feud with Robert Kennedy is worth the hundred-plus pages that Caro devotes to it? Or is it that the mutual hatred of two larger than life men is easier for Caro to write about than, say, the economic impact of the 1964 tax cut that LBJ worked so hard to pass? Caro's portraits of the Kennedy brothers are indelible and fascinating, and it's nice to see an old fashioned liberal who's willing to really stick it to Bobby Kennedy like he deserves. But considering how many major policies were passed under LBJ, it's unfortunate that he spends so much time on minor bits of palace intrigue.

Caro's mythic conception of LBJ also affects his political history. Caro presents the Congress of 1963 as being in the iron grip of the 'conservative coalition', a combination of right-wing Republicans and southern Democrats that dominated the two houses of Congress and used the committee system to stymie liberal legislation. Only LBJ, Caro suggests, was able to use his political genius to break through the logjam. But the evidence suggests that the conservative coalition was less formidable than Caro makes it seem. Conservatives had been unable to prevent JFK and Sam Rayburn from weakening the southern hold on the House Rules Committee. And the best efforts of Goldwater Republicans were unable to keep many Republicans from embracing civil rights. (Minority leader Charles Halleck's support for the Goldwaterite "southern strategy" led Republicans to dump him in favor of the more moderate Gerald Ford.) LBJ certainly deserves credit for seeing the fault lines that existed and exploiting them, but Caro gives the lion's share of the credit to him when larger forces were at work.

Similarly, a lot of attention is paid to LBJ's ability to win over Congressmen and Senators. But historical comparisons reveal that LBJ's record in this regard isn't remarkably different from Barack Obama's. Caro often describes Johnson as the master political deal-maker, but LBJ wasn't so much a master as he was the beneficiary of large majorities and favorable political winds... for a time.

Again, I love these books, and I intend to re-read them. But they are large enough and prestigious enough that they get treated as authoritative, and this they are not. Caro is a fine writer, but if you want sound historical analysis, get a second opinion.

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